Review of The Naked City

Remember Jean Dexter...
13 November 2014
"There are eight million stories in New York City," intones the narrator, "and this is just one of them." Not all stories are as gripping as this one, though. The Naked City is a tough-as-nails detective noir (there are two murders in the first five minutes) from Jules "Rififi" Dassin, and it delivers all the suspicion, salaciousness, and shooting one could hope for – albeit not much more.

As with his previous film, the prison drama Brute Force, Dassin is plunging us into a brutal underworld, although this time we're watching events from the perspective of the cops, led by Lieutenant Muldoon (Barry Fitzgerald), as they investigate the murder of a female model. Suspects come and go, with some really dodgy ones thrown in as red herrings, before the culprit takes his pursuers on a tour of New York landmarks.

Claiming to present the city "as it is", Dassin shot the film largely without sets, giving the exterior scenes in particular an unusual (for 1948) sense of authenticity. The same can't be said of the performances, which are wildly melodramatic at times, although in the lead role Fitzgerald brings a typically wicked dry wit.

The script might lack the sharpness of a true classic such as Double Indemnity, and the dialogue could have done with some hard boiling by the likes of Jim "The Killing" Thompson, but the film ebbs and flows admirably, daring to portray detective work as an imperfect science. For every revelation or clue there's a mad man or woman claiming they killed Jean Dexter. At one point the investigation comes to a shuddering halt as the men claw for leads. But it's all in the service of a tremendous third act, which ramps up the pace, and leads to a brilliantly composed chase 'em up finale, of which a certain Mr Hitchcock would have been proud.

What stops The Naked City from matching Hitch's finest work is a lack of anything to really distinguish it from the crowd. The absurdly verbose narrator pushes the idea that it is, in a sense, the ugly city itself that's killed beautiful Jean, but it's a theme that never fully convinces in what we're actually shown. The film does come to life in a handful of individual scenes – such as a visit to the mortuary, where Jean's mother decries her daughter before crying for her; or a confrontation with a rabbit-punching ex-wrestler – but overall there's little here not done before, bar a documentary-style conceit hardly plundered.

"It's a heavy case," we're told more than once, and it's a heavy film. Unsentimental and intensely talky (until that last act), it's a well-constructed, if ultimately unremarkable, police procedural in which to sink on a Sunday afternoon.
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